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seal of confession

I do not have to repeat here the reactions in Ireland to the Cloyne Report and the realisation that the Roman Catholic Church continued its inappropriate response to clerical sex abuse. It is covered in many places. One Irish newspaper published a photograph of the Pope with “Persona Non Grata” superimposed on his image. There are recommendations ranging from the dissolution of the monasteries to the expulsion of the Papal Nuncio and the severing of all links with the Vatican.

Ireland may become the first country to over-rule the seal of sacramental confession.

Compulsory reporting of child abuse proposed in a new bill which will be presented later in the year will make no exception for the seal of confession. Justice Minister Alan Shatter has warned that he will not tolerate an exemption for the confessional. His stance has received the support of Enda Kenny, the prime minister, who told reporters, ‘The law of the land should not be stopped by a crozier or a collar’.

Under the plans put forward by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, priests could be jailed for up to five years for failing to disclose information on serious offences against a child even if this was obtained during confession.

Anglicans and others have the same approach to the seal of confession as Roman Catholics. The regulation for NZ Anglicans reads:

The priest exercises this ministry in complete confidentiality. The penitent is therefore able to confess in the assurance that the priest will not refer to the matter again, except at the penitent’s request, and under no circumstances will ever repeat to any other person what has been divulged.

What appears to me to be occasionally missed is that the priest cannot even refer back about what was confessed to the penitent. The priest cannot say, “how is it going with…?”

The otherwise-excellent movie Priest took me aback when the priest referred back to something from the confessional to the person who had been confessing.

What are people’s thoughts about the Irish law (it had previously been suggested in Australia but dropped)? what are people’s experiences of priests referring back to what was previously confessed? What has the formation and training been like in the ministry of confession? And around the seal of confession?

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25 thoughts on “seal of confession”

  1. Good questions, Bosco
    I expect that, despite their quite appropriate anger at abuses, the Irish politicians will find the weight of precedent and legal advice may make them back off from the suggested law change. If not, a couple of high profile cases of Priests going to prison for refusing to divulge what they heard may cause a re-visiting of the issue.
    My understanding is that the priest may not even admit that a particular person’s confession occurred, let alone the contents of it.
    Two stories from people I have known who had far greater ministries as confessors than I have.

    My father used to talk of a hypothetical case where a man confesses to murdering someone, and throwing the body into the river. Two weeks later, the priest and the ‘penitent’ happen to be travelling past the river, when the man says: “that’s where I threw him in”. According to the strict interpretation of the rules, that second conversation is not covered by the confessional, and the priest is free to go to the police.

    Bishop Bruce Moore had a stronger argument that he once offered in a synod discussion of this topic. Part of a properly conducted confession is a penance imposed by the priest. +Bruce’s suggestion is that if someone confesses to illegal behaviour (such as child abuse) then the penance should include an undertaking to go to the police by a certain deadline. If the person making the confession refuses or fails to do so, then they are not truly penitent, so it is not a true confession, so the priest need not be bound by confidentiality, and can go to the police her/himself.

    Perhaps the church hierarchy in Ireland could offer that advice to their priests, which might help prevent an unfortunate law change.

    1. Thanks, Edward. I am taken by your point that a priest cannot confirm or deny whether someone came to them for sacramental confession. I would love some more thoughts on that.

      I think I am in agreement with your father’s point.

      And I am not in agreement with Bishop Bruce’s. The seal of confession is not dependent on the penitence of the penitent. I think my approach would be, in such a situation, that if the penitent had not gone to the police, that I would withhold absolution until they had done so – but I would uphold the seal of confession.


        1. Yes, Joel, I think that’s part of it. If the penitent comes with the clear intention of going to the police, one might absolve and have the going to the police as part of the “penance”. If the intention to go to the police is not so clear one might withhold absolution and, when the penitent has gone to the police, conclude the confession with absolution.

  2. There seems to be a huge logical mistake in the propose Irish law, especially in my reading of what appears to be behind the phrase: ‘The law of the land should not be stopped by a crozier or a collar’. Their idea seems to be that the law is trying hard to stop child abuse, and somebody with knowledge of a confession of abuse – yet remaining silent – is preventing the law halting the abuse. The flaw in the logic is that removing the privacy from confessions is pretty likely to put an end to a lot of the confessions, isn’t it? The priest only gets to hear information that nobody else would be told… and (even with great restrictions on what may done with the knowledge) it surely is better, as far as the risk of ongoing abuse is concerned, to at least have that opening up during the confession than to discourage any disclosures.

    Having said that, I think the person hearing the confession should be able to raise the issue with the abuser, and I’d hope could ensure everyone gets the counselling they need without divulging what was confessed. Ideally confessions should be to the whole congregation, with the expectation that someone will have a helpful response.

    1. Thanks, Mark. I think your point about the positive value of the seal of confession is very important. And confessing to the whole congregation as part of the process that follows may be a very important step.

  3. While the seal of confession is undeniably important, the sacrament mustn’t be allowed to be used as a dodge for justice, simply defined as doing the right thing. At the very least, with such serious, criminal sins, absolution ought to be withheld until the penitent performs his/her penance — and the penance assigned ought to be no receiving communion and no ministering at the altar before turning oneself into the police.

    Among early Christians, absolution wasn’t the automatic finale of confession — there was a period of quite public penance, sometimes even lasting years, where penitents were not only barred from communion, but even confined to the doorway of the church. Absolution only took place some time thereafter, such as at the end of Lent, so the penitents could be reintegrated back into the Church in time to celebrate Easter.

    There can be no crying “Oh, those dastardly, brazen, blasphemous secularists!” in this matter. If Christians did the Christian thing when confronted by such scandals in their midst — “having nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather exposing them” (Ephesians 5:11), instead of sweeping them under the rug and shielding the perpetrators — nobody would have reason to call for passing laws abrogating the seal of confession. Hatred of confession among non-Christians didn’t spawn this legislative impetus — Christians misusing confession and not doing the Christian thing spawned it. High time to be honest about that!

    “It would be better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone hung around one’s neck than to cause of these little ones to fall into sin” (Luke 17:2).

    1. Thanks, Gregory. This, I think, is a very helpful historical context. I would add that excommunicating someone in the way you have described, if not self-imposed by the penitent, has complex ramifications. By refusing a person communion when they seek it breaches the seal IMO as others can see this happening. I do not have time currently to check our canons, but I have a niggling memory that if a priest excommunicates someone, the bishop also needs to be informed – but, as I say, I may have that wrong. Blessings.

  4. In Texas failure to report suspected child abuse is a criminal offense punishable by up to 180 days in jail. The statute specifies that doctors, attorneys, clergy, etc. aren’t exempt. I don’t know whether any clergy have been prosecuted or not.

    1. This is fascinating, Paul. Are you certain that sacramental confession is not exempt in Texas? Certainly, if a person comes to a clergyperson and just “confesses” to child abuse, unless formal, sacramental rite is being used, such a non-sacramental confession I do not see as being covered by the seal, and would follow the Texas law. If it was sacramental confession I would think priests would maintain the seal – contrary to what you suggest is the law in Texas. Can any priests in Texas comment?

  5. I am not a Catholic so I do not understand the workings of all which have been intelligently discussed here. I can really understand the moral dilemma that a priest would face in the light of any such criminal confession.
    An accusation came to light through our church situation, the *victim* had been a mess for a while & had asked for confidentiality, we had always stated that we could not be bound be certain promises as they were a juvenile. Eventually the juvenile shared their hurt & pain through a catalogue of events.
    We (I am a church pastor) took the stand to inform the authorities before parents were told. We did not keep keep quite. Our reasons were varied but I will name a few
    1) the young person was due protection from the law
    2) the accused needed proper investigation
    3) as a member of the priesthood (in a non catholic way) I am not trained in helping
    4) both the accused & the victim are deserving of the best help available

    My only concern with keeping silent after a confession has been heard, is that there may never be movement forward for the confessor, surely when one confesses a person is confessing to a problem in which they need support, advice and guidance? Therefore to enquire afterwards is an essential part of the corrective process for the confessor? As the person hearing the confession bring bound by silence seems to be dangerous ground to me…may I suggest that it keeps the problem in the dark.

    1. Thanks, Rachel. As you read through these comments, I think everyone in this discussion is agreeing with your points which you highlight well. There are certain “levels” of confidentiality and certain conditions under which people are understood they will “break” that level of confidentiality. Normal counselling confidentiality, for example, is understood as rightly broken when a person or another’s safety is at stake. This discussion is about a particular “level” of confidentiality for which there has been the normal understanding that there is a sacred duty that it never be broken. Your points are important. Blessings.

  6. Maybe a sensible step for the churches is if they make it policy that the priest reminds all penitents before the sacrament starts that the church expects penitents to relay information of a criminal nature to the police before any absolution can be given. (Either it’s known with certainty that the issue is known to the police or the person needs the priests support to immediately notify the police. Either way the person is aware of the boundaries before the conversation starts.)
    I don’t think this is unreasonable because it should be part of the contrition of the person and the consequences (legal process) form part of the penance. It’s then the decision of the person whether they mention the issue or not to the priest in the fist place. Forgiveness, from God or persons, doesn’t remove the need for temporal reparation.

    1. Thanks, Leigh. I think your point very good – whenever I teach about sacramental confession (which would be at least once a year) I talk about the seal of confession and the possibility of withholding absolution much as you describe. Blessings.

  7. No real legal protection exists in Canada for a seal, though deference to the custom is ordinarily expected.
    The National Post has published a good summary of our legal situation here: http://life.nationalpost.com/2011/07/25/analysis-the-state-of-clergy-parishioner-privilege-in-canada/#more-38232
    Perhaps more interestingly, while our _Book of Alternative Services_ is quite clear about the inviolability of the seal (“The secrecy of a confession of sin is morally absolute for the confessor, and must under no circumstances be broken.” p. 166), some dioceses have made it clear to clergy that any and all instances of children in danger or harmed must be reported.

    1. Thanks, Matthew. Very helpful.

      What interests me in your point: in our context, the Prayer Book, and within that specifically the service “Reconciliation of a Penitent” is a formulary of our church. It is not possible here, even should a diocese or a bishop attempt to do so, to overrule that as your point indicates. I would be interested how that is so different in Canada.


  8. I am married to a Texan, and I do have a couple of Texan priests among my friends. I will try to get an answer to that question.

  9. The seal of the Confessional should be absolute. If it was known not to be then those with something to hide would not go, and the state would still be none the wiser. Add to that all the ramifications for that person’s soul as well, and it all just seems horrendous and probably just posturing on the behalf of the politicians involved.

      1. It’s a short step to open religious persecution (as it generally starts with the clergy), were there ever an instance whereby the upholders of the law ever wanted to make an issue of it. We are going to need some very brave priests in the future, most likely.

  10. I’m not a Priest. As a former Roman Catholic, now an Anglican, I believe that confession is totally confidential and as a Sacrament is binding on the Priest.

    What I feel having used the Sacrament in both denominations, is that the CofE approach is much more pastoral than the RC version, particularly as the Priest is likely to discuss with the penitent things arising from the confession and suggesting remedial actions along with penance and absolution. For me, it actually becomes an opportunity to not only confess, but to discuss moral issues, which might not be addressed elsewhere.

    My understanding is that, if the Priest during a confession, is told of something where harm has been done or is likely to be done, he or she should actively encourage the penitent to go to the authorities and own up to their actions. Although they cannot oblige them to. In my view, if the penitent declined to do so, there is the strong possibility that their contrition is false or invalid in terms of the meaning of the sacrament. I’m unsure where this leaves the Priest when this happens.

  11. The statute itself has no exception for sacramental confessions, and the Texas Attorney General has issued an opinion that with respect to “confidential communications” between clergy and parishioner, the statute doesn’t violate the US constitution. However, it doesn’t appear that any priests have been prosecuted under the statute, so there has been no opportunity to test it in court.

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